Judge Forces Lifeguards Drowning in Union Dues to Keep Paying Against Their Will

(AP Photo/Steve Christensen)
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Lifeguards assist a person who was in the water and apparently struck by lightening Sunday July 27, 2014 in Los Angeles. Authorities said lightning struck 14 people, leaving two critically injured, as rare summer thunderstorms swept through Southern California on Sunday. (AP Photo/Steve Christensen)


The following article is by Jonny Savas, a California lifeguard represented by the Freedom Foundation in a lawsuit against his union. There are two dozen lifeguards partaking in the suit.

No one in possession of even a passing acquaintance with the U.S. Constitution —  let alone a federal judge sworn to uphold it — could have concocted the recent ruling that denied 23 California lifeguards their freedom to opt out of a union more interested in taking their money than representing their concerns.

But this is California, where the demands of the state’s most ruthless special interests always seem to triumph over individual rights like ours.

On Sept. 8, U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw somehow found a way to dismiss a lawsuit filed in January by almost two dozen members of the California State Law Enforcement Association (CSLEA) unhappy with the service the union was providing in exchange for the dues being deducted from their paychecks.

I and my fellow plaintiffs — all lifeguards working in Southern California — have long been outraged by CSLEA’s arrogance, lack of transparency, and reckless political spending on issues and agendas we find abhorrent. The union’s members have no voting rights for contract ratification, no medical benefits, and none of the training incentives commonplace in other agencies around the state and around the country.

But despite our repeated pleas, the union has refused for years to even ask that those provisions be included in its collective bargaining agreement with California’s Department of Parks and Recreation.


And there was nothing we could do about it because, until very recently, lifeguards — like all California public employees — were required to join the union or pay a punitive fee if we wanted to keep our jobs. 

That changed in 2018, when the U.S. Supreme Court, in Janus v. AFSCME, ruled that mandatory union membership and dues or fees in the government workplace were a violation of the First Amendment, clearing the way for employees to reject union participation altogether.

Armed with the Janus decision, the California lifeguards chose to exercise their rights by submitting paperwork opting out of CSLEA. The union denied our request, however, citing a provision in its collective bargaining agreement we never saw and had not voted on.

Because CSLEA’s contract with Parks and Recreation won’t expire until 2023, the union contends it has the right to keep member lifeguards in limbo — but still paying dues — for at least three more years.

And Judge Sabraw acknowledged the formation defects, but still affirmed the membership contracts. Thus, our opt-out is nothing short of an attempt to breach a lawful contract.

His argument betrays a willful ignorance of both the Janus ruling and the facts of the case.

Janus requires that public employees affirmatively consent to dues and or fee deductions before the government takes money from their wages. In other words, they must be aware of their First Amendment rights and then voluntarily waive them.

It would be impossible for us to waive our rights because we signed our membership agreements before the Janus decision. And to make matters worse, we were not even aware of the restrictions on membership resignations. The membership cards make no reference to any restrictions or the CBA which supposedly binds us to membership for years.


In any case, Judge Sabraw’s decision to throw out the lifeguards’ lawsuit is absurd on its face because it is based almost solely on California’s law preventing opt-outs as long as the union still has a CBA in force with the worker’s employer.

But again, that law — like the union membership agreements — was invalidated when Janus affirmed that both violate the U.S. Constitution. And always have.

Judge Sabraw either fails to appreciate that critical distinction or is willfully ignoring it in deference to the unions. Either way, you can bet the authors of Janus at the Supreme Court won’t make the same mistake.

Jonny Savas is a lifeguard in Southern California and is represented in the suit by the Freedom Foundation.


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